Douglas Feir – Officer in Charge of #19 SFTS Photo Section

Doug Feir spent most of his time with the BCATP as a navigation instructor. With some extra time on his hands and an interest in photography he became the officer in charge of the photo section at the Vulcan station. With access to a complete photo lab filled with commercial equipment and the availability of F24 aerial cameras he suddenly found it necessary to fly missions to various parts of the country to obtain photos for map reading exercises or just for the fun of it.

The following is a selection of Doug’s work followed by a summary he wrote of his BCATP years.

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BCATP Station Vulcan

My BCATP Years

by F/O D.L. Feir

My life as a recruit began at the Lachine Manning Depot. It seemed to be one large parade ground but in reality, there were a few offices and barracks to be found. Manning Depot was the door which opened the way to military life The most important object the recruit met was a Flight Sergeant who told him where to go, what to do, and when to do it. He was impeccably dressed in a natty uniform with polished buttons and shiny shoes. He let it be known that he was the model to be copied. He taught his charges to line up. Nothing was ever done without lining up. Breakfast, dinner, documentation and medicals all began with a line up.

Lines were of two types; those where it was important to be first and those where it was better to be last. It was never a good idea to be late for breakfast or for parade. On the other hand, one could escape unpleasant duties by being at the end of the line. It took a long period of training to learn the fine points of lining up.

At Manning Depot civilians put away their blue jeans and cowboy hats and became airmen in uniform. Most recruits entered with the rank of AC2. He was known as Acey-deucey and was almost the lowest form of humanity. Direct entry officers, of which I was one, were one step lower because they had no authority and they bought their own uniform. But they soon learned that they could scrounge battle dress at clothing stores and thus look like an AC2 with an officer’s hat.

Medical line up was the most feared because of the horror stories which preceded it. Medical officers poked and prodded, filled in forms and finally shot the recruit full of some concoction from a horse syringe. In truth, it was not as bad as the stories made it. Most candidates made it through the line without any serious after effects. The nervous types, however, fainted on the floor before they could leave the centre.

Between line ups for paper work, there was work to be done on the parade square. Here, the Flight Sergeant was in his glory because he could show off the quality of his thundering voice. He had only two weeks in which he must turn a gaggle of rookies into some semblance of military form. He did his best. Even the most inattentive could not say that he had not heard the orders.

One useful bit of information came out of this. On parade, it is wise to stand on ones toes rather than on the heels. Half an hour on the heels will put a man flat on his face on the pavement.

After two weeks at Manning Depot, the direct entry officers were shipped off to an Officer’s Training School at Domaine d’Esterel. Here we were to learn the rudiments of being an officer and a gentleman. We memorized the drill manual and practiced daily at moving a body of men from A to B without having them collide with a wall. The chances of an aircrew officer being called upon to conduct a squadron parade were few. But the Air Force, in its wisdom insisted that we learn the procedure. We learned about administrative procedure and how to fill in forms. We learned that one does not smoke before the toast to the Queen. Most of this was forgotten as soon as the session at the school was finished.

Domaine d’Esterel left one lasting impression. It was a Laurentian resort hotel which catered to wealthy Montrealers in better days. We enjoyed the plush surroundings even though they were reduced to their military minimum.

I was posted to No. 1 Central Navigation School at Rivers Manitoba, for training as a navigator. Before the Air Force came, Rivers was a few elevators and enough businesses to supply the local farmers. It was like many other small prairie towns which played host to the military during the war. It didn’t have room for hundreds of airmen so life was confined to the station. It was just as well that most of us stayed on the stations because the public transportation system, which was mainly rail, was not up the job of carrying thousands of men around the country. At times it seemed as though the railways had rediscovered every colonist car they ever had and put them into service.

Air navigation in 1940 was based on the techniques of sea navigation. A plot of course changes was kept on a Mercator chart so that at any time an air position could be established. The ground position depended on what the moving air had done to the aircraft during the flight time. Since the best met forecast gave only an approximation of the wind, it was important to establish a fix so that the effect of the wind could be measured. This, in turn, was used to determine a change of course and an ETA.

In theory, a fix is easy to obtain if the ground was visible and the altitude not too great. All one had to do was identify some object below that could also be found on a topographical map. In practice, this was not as easy as it seemed. Many a budding navigator lost his way because he could not identify any visible object. Too often he had no idea where he was which meant that his topographical was of no use at all. But this worry gradually decreased with experience.

Above the overcast or at night things were different. There were no nice solid objects which could be identified. The life of the navigator often became frightening. He found himself inside a flying box which he had to direct but knew not where to point it! Radio bearings on a known transmitter were used a good deal. When the reciprocal was plotted, the navigator had a position line. But it took three position lines at good angles to each other to provide an accurate fix. To confuse him further, radio bearings were not always reliable under combat conditions, nobody was filling the air with radio beacons on which the navigator could depend. It was too easy for the enemy to use them. It was almost too easy for the enemy to send out false signals which led to completely false directions.

Celestial navigation was reliable in the hands of an expert. The expertise required hours of practice. Sextants used in the air contain a bubble which serves as the horizon. The operator must find the proper star, sight it through the bubble and crank off a series of readings. The altitude readings are averaged and the time of the middle shot is noted to the exact second. The navigator’s compartment in the aircraft was covered with a plexiglass dome through which the sights were taken. Having measured the altitude of three different stars, he set to with books of tables and calculated a position line for each. This was done in twelve minutes by an expert. The resulting position at the point where the position lines crossed was often accurate to within a mile.

In the early days of the war there were a few other gadgets which were helpful. The most useful gadget was a pilot who could fly a course at constant air speed. Under war time conditions there were many obstacles in the pilot’s way. A good gyro compass along with a dependable magnetic compass were essential. Most aircraft carried drift sights and bomb sights which were useful when the ground or the sea were visible. The astro compass could be an accurate check but it was time consuming to calculate the settings needed for flying a course.

In 1940 there were no electronic calculators or computers. The only tool available to the navigator was a combination circular slide rule and plotter on which he could establish a course or a wind. But for that, there was no way to lighten the chore of mental effort. It was not until much later in the war that radar devices were developed which provided accurate fixes. Even they presented some problems. They did not operate well over long distances and they were subject to jamming by the enemy.

The aircraft used at the Navigation Schools was the Anson. The Mark I version was a pre-war bomber; a clumsy twin engine machine which was very reliable as a trainer. It could carry a crew of five. The rear cabin had seats for two navigators and a wireless operator. In front of that, the wing spar and various bits of tubular framework partially blocked the way into the pilot’s compartment. The co-pilot’s seat blocked the way into the bombardier’s hatch. When the bomb sight was used, the bombardier crawled flat on his stomach over the seat, then flat on the floor until he reached the sight. It was a maneuver for an acrobat.

The Mark I had one feature remembered by anyone who sat in the co-pilot’s seat. The landing gear was raised and lowered by a hand crank fixed alongside the seat. It was a privilege of the person sitting in this position to turn the crank. The problem disappeared in later versions.

Military aircraft were not designed for the comfort and convenience of the crew. The navigator’s compartment would hold a small man without parachute or winter clothing. Any larger person was wedged in with a shoehorn. Framework, bomb racks and sundry gadgets seemed to be placed to catch the unwary between the eyes or across the shins. Although a navigator learned to become automatic about his work, he soon found that there was a big difference between a table in a quiet room and the cramped quarters given him in the aircraft. Here he competed with the speed of the aircraft. Thundering engines made concentration difficult. In unstable air, loose objects floated away. In cold weather, heavy flying suits helped to keep him warm, but hampered his movement. Heaters were poor; bare fingers were always cold. But the rest of the crew suffered too and after a while the pressure and the discomfort were accepted as part of the routine.

At the end of this initial training period, I was posted to No. 2 AOS in Edmonton as an instructor. The routine of teaching young navigators their theory and guiding them through their practical work held some excitement for a while. Too often the waiting between classes was boring. Fortunately, we were able to find a small apartment and family life became possible for a short time.

In the midst of the routine at any school, something usually happened which helped to relive the monotony. At Edmonton, it was the Celestial Navigation trainer. From the outside, the building looked like an old railway water tower. Inside there as an elaborate Link Trainer. The cockpit held a pilot, navigator and wireless operator. Over head was an hemispherical cage about 25 feet in diameter supporting pinpoint lights which represented the major stars. Fifteen feet below was a photo reproduction of a section of ground. It could move in any direction to simulate visual contact flying. Down in the operating room there was a crab to record track and controls for the star dome.

The machine was designed to provide practice in celestial navigation and crew flying. It had been installed but never used. I was given the job of making it work. It had not been used because there were bugs in it; because there were no operators who knew how to run it; it ran perfectly but the Air Force never got around to training the people to make it useful.

After four months at Edmonton, I was posted to No2 Bombing and Gunnery School at Mossbank, Saskatchewan. As the town contained no living quarters, the family was split again.

No. 2 B and G trained air gunners and bombardiers. This group received some instruction in navigation nevertheless. Their services were occasionally required. So once again, I joined a flight of instructors and staff pilots which sat in offices or bars and waited to be called. As each new class arrived on the station, an instructor would be assigned. His teaching load was not heavy so there was plenty of spare time to be filled. We had to find a way of filling it. The most natural way to approach this problem was to practice whatever skills were offered by the station.

Early bomb sights were simple devices which contained a compass and a set of arms at right angles to each other on which the bombardier could fix his altitude, speed and wind. By peering through his collection of hardware at the target, he could determine when to press the release button. Bombing runs were practiced on the camera obscura. It was a windowless shack, somewhere on the airfield, with a lens in its roof. This formed an image of the sky on a large table. As the bomb release was pressed, a light flashed on the aircraft. Its position was marked on the table and from this the accuracy of the bomb determined.

Gunnery practice started with learning to take a machine gun apart and put it together again while blindfolded. Once the gunner knew his machines he practiced skeet shooting with .22 calibre bird shot. Instead of clay pigeons as a target he had a small model aircraft to fire at. From there he went to the air and tried to put holes in a drogue towed behind an old Lysander, about the slowest plane that ever flew under engine power. Firing at a moving target required some skill. There were more misses than hits. The pilot of the tow plane hoped to be among the misses.

The posting to No. 19 SFTS at Vulcan, Alberta, brought another complete change. Pilots went to a Secondary Flying Training School after they were given wings. They were divided into single engine and multi-engined pilots. No. 19 SFTS was a multi-engined station at which pilots began to learn to handle the heavy bombers. Most of the twin aircraft used were Ansons.

Pilots don’t have much time for navigation so their training was limited to map reading and course plotting on the computer. Navigation instructors at an SFTS had very little to do. Once again it was a case of finding the things the station had to offer.

Fortunately, the Photo Section needed an officer in charge. I was assigned the job. It required no special training or knowledge. It wasn’t necessary to know one end of a camera from the other. The officer merely signs his name to anything the Flight Sergeant puts in front of him. The work of the section was carried out by the personnel who had been trained for the job. So the fact that pilots learned to make bombing runs with the help of a camera mounted beneath their aircraft was of no importance to me.

However, being OC of a section and having some interest in photography, I was able to gain special privileges. There was a complete photo lab filled with commercial equipment waiting to be used. There were F24 aerial cameras to be had on request. They made beautiful negatives. It suddenly became necessary to fly missions to various parts of the country to obtain photos for map reading exercises or just for the fun of it.

The OC of the Link Trainer section was a room mate. He needed help in setting up exercises for his machines. I needed instrument time so we combined efforts. The station maintained two or three Harvards, a secondary single trainer, for special projects. Occasionally we took one of these while I practiced flying the radio range.

Spare time was used in other less intelligent ways. There was an episode in which Vulcan bombed Claresholm with bags of flour and rolls of toilet paper. To the crews it was hilarious; to the brass it was something less.

Dog fights were not uncommon. An Anson is not built for this exercise and occasionally an inexperienced pilot would put on too much pressure and crack a wing spar. But serious accidents were rare.

Cloud flying was another popular sport. It was an exhilarating experience to fly the valleys and tunnels of a big cumulus cloud. But when there was more than one aircraft to a cloud, it became a game of Russian Roulette. No one paid much attention to the near misses. Everyone knew that military flying carried its risks.

By the spring of 1945 the Germans were weakening. Since the outcome of the war was not in doubt, the need for aircrew began to diminish. I was posted back to Rivers to put in time at odd jobs. For a while, that meant looking after navigation stores and wing aircraft compasses.

Many of us were offered the option of discharge. Since I could go back to a civilian job in September, it didn’t take long to decide the next move. Discharge became official in Vancouver in August 1945.


Douglas Laidlaw Feir Service Record RCAF 1943 – 1945

January 18, 1943Applied for Officer status in the Special Reserve
August 13, 1943Enlistment in regular forces

August 18, 1943
Posted to Lachine Manning Depot, Lachine, PE – Basic Training
September 16, 1943 Posted to St. Marguerite, PQ (Domaine d’Esterel) – Office Training School
December 29, 1943 Posted to Rivers, Man. No. 1 Central Navigation School to learn navigation
February 13, 1944 Promoted to Flying Officer
April 30, 1944 Awarded Navigators Badge
September 12, 1944
Awarded Canadian Volunteer Service Medal
November 26, 1944
Posted to Mossbank, Sask. No. 2 Bombing and Gunnery School as instructor in navigation
March 18, 1945 Posted to Vulcan, Alta. No. 19 Secondary Flying Training School as instuctor in navigation and Officer in Charge of Photo Section
August 19, 1945
Posted to Rivers, Man, No. 1 Central Navigation School

August 20, 1945

Completed term of voluntary Service during emergency – Vancouver, BC Certificate of Service Issued to Officers read as follows:his is to certify that Flying Officer #C29261 Feir, Douglas Laidlaw,
was appointed to Commissioned Rank in Special Reserve Non-Flying List as a Navigation Officer Royal Canadian Air Force on the 13th day of August 1943 and was struck off Strength on the 20th day of August 1945 by reason of K.R. (AIR) 151(1)(i) “Retirement on completion of a term of voluntary service during an emergency” and transferred to the General Section Reserve Class “E” under the provisions of K.R. (AIR) 162(4).

Dated at Vancouver, B.C. this 20th day of August 1945.